On a visit to East Anglia in the United Kingdom, I met people who were not only using bicycles in preference to motor vehicles but who were dedicated to conserving and protecting all of nature.
Numerous conservation projects had been established in 280 square kilometres of uninterrupted landscape with waterways - shallow lakes known as the broads - teeming with different species of fish together with animal, bird, insect and plant life.
In parts, the broads looked something like the two big swamplands of my own district of Kandep in Enga Province.
The big difference was that my two swamplands were devoid of the flocks of birds I had seen in the 1960s and 1970s which were disturbed by the planes that took off to take the young men to work on the coastal plantations.
The birds were also disturbed by the Missionary Aviation Fellowship and Seventh Day Adventist aircraft which flew in regularly with mail and supplies.
On the lakes there were several boats. One was named Kandep Queen which was used by the kiaps to water ski and shoot the ducks which were then plentiful. District Commissioner Tom Ellis would fly from Mt Hagen to join in the fun. I used to hear the bang, bang of the guns and watch Kandep Queen come to shore with the spoils.
Today, with the widespread introduction of firearms, the ducks have dwindled in numbers due to over hunting by locals and expatriates.
By contrast, on the broads, the birds, fish, insects and plant life were safe. They were carefully conserved. We were led along a boardwalk which took us through the broad’s various stages from open water to dry oak woodland.
The warden took us on a boat ride on Ranworth Broad, which was quite shallow. Twice the outboard motor blade got tangled in submerged debris and we struggled to get it free and running.
The broads were manmade, created during medieval times. People dug them up for peat to use as fuel. The pits were flooded when sea levels rose in the 14th century.
Ranworth Broad was one of about 40 shallow lakes interconnected by waterways and a haven for rare species of birds and other assorted wildlife and plants.
But what had happened to the thick jungles and river systems in my country?
Upon returning to Papua New Guinea, I was imbued with a sense of responsibility to ensure the safety and protection of animal life and eco-systems. I wished people would realise the value of our eco-systems so abundant with animals, plants and insect life and famous for their diversity throughout the scientific world.
Discoveries of rare species are made constantly – some helpful to scientific research like the pitohui, a small poisonous song bird.
The six species of this small brightly coloured bird are native only to the island of New Guinea. It is the first poisonous bird known to science. One hundred milligrams of the bird’s breast meat contains enough toxin to kill a mouse in 20 minutes.
The pitohui’s flesh as well as its skin and feathers contain the same nerve toxin that Amazonian Indians extract from frogs to poison their arrows. The toxin is hundreds of times more potent than strychnine.
The discovery could have practical benefits in anaesthesia and in treating arrhythmias of the heart.
A sense of regret came over me: how much animal, plant and insect life had we made extinct due to road construction, mining and deforestation?
United States Vice President Al Gore told the 1993 Waigani Seminar in a special video message: “I am glad you have chosen to focus your seminar on the need to strike a balance between economic development and conservation of the world’s vital resources. We must all get involved if we are to find solutions to our problems of deforestation, global warming, pollution, extinction of species and the unnecessary waste of our natural resources.
“PNG is home to one of the world’s last tropical rain forests. Your forests are not only important to your own people, but to the world’s climate and atmosphere as well. Your many unique plants and animals, thriving in the crossroads between Australia and Asia may hold biological secrets that will bring benefit to people everywhere. In terms of the number of biological species, New Guinea is perhaps the riches island in the world.”
But nobody was making any effort to conserve the two great swamplands of Kandep. The ducks, cormorants, cranes and other birds were no longer there in huge numbers. The fish stock too, introduced only in the 1960s by the colonial administration, had dwindled due to overfishing.
It is indeed a sad state of affairs in Kandep.